The audio High Command at Ubisoft Paris assembled a crack squad of veteran rock and electronic musicians to improvise the growling soundtrack for the shared-world shooter.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Tactical shooter Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon debuted in 2001 — two months after 9/11 — with the series continuing on as the Western world became increasingly tangled up in overseas conflicts.
Ghost Recon games have always been serious and strategic, depicting elite squads of U.S. Special Forces soldiers taking out the bad guys across the globe. The latest title, 2019’s Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint builds upon the open-world success of predecessor Ghost Recon Wildlands with mixed single-player and multiplayer stealth and action gameplay. Breakpoint sees players trying to take down the charismatic former Ghost, Lieutenant Colonel Cole D. Walker (played by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), while navigating the vast and varied terrain of the fictional South Pacific island Auroa.
To find out how the game was soundtracked, we spoke to Breakpoint’s music supervisor Manu Bachet, lead composers Alain Johannes and Alessandro Cortini, and musical collaborator Norm Block.
During the planning stages of Breakpoint, Audio Director Ghislain Soufflet and Music Supervisor Manu Bachet at Ubisoft Paris were keen to once again work with rock producer and multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes. Johannes had served as a member of both Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures (while touring) and was re-enlisted to give Breakpoint a grungy and dark edge.
Bachet recalls: “We were thrilled by Alain's work on Ghost Recon Wildlands, for which he set a strong musical identity. We wanted to continue the adventure with him on Breakpoint and stick to the same method of largely improvised music that was more or less placed directly into the game. The ‘dark rock’ feel was there from day one.”
Johannes was joined on the project by electronic music artist Alessandro Cortini, himself formerly of Nine Inch Nails. Cortini is an analogue synthesiser fanatic capable of conjuring interesting sounds from just about anything with a voltage running through it.
“The electronic aspect also came up pretty early on during the conception of the game,” comments Bachet. “Breakpoint is about advanced technology and how badly things can go when it falls into the wrong hands. To illustrate that, we needed to take a more gritty, electronic approach than with Wildlands. When we asked ourselves who could bring that kind of sound wizardry to the game, Alessandro's name came up almost instantly. Plus, Alain and him already knew each other so it was an easy call.”
The team was rounded out by the addition of producer-percussionist Norm Block, another formidable musician with an enviable CV. Bachet adds: “Norm was already part of the Wildlands' band and we knew his inventive drumming would complete the band perfectly.”
Music briefs for video games can vary wildly in formality and scope, from vague conversations about ‘vibe’ to hundred-page briefing documents and hours of meetings accompanied by mountains of reference material, gameplay videos, builds of the game, and so on.
Of course, the Tom Clancy and Ghost Recon brands sit firmly in AAA blockbuster territory with budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bachet admits: “Briefs for game music are usually super detailed and put a lot of constraints on the composer. For this game though, we literally had no brief!
“On Wildlands we experimented with the idea of improvising the music while looking at the game. We were inspired by movie experimentations like Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, for which Miles Davis improvised the music to the movie. Also Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, which was live-scored by Neil Young in front of the screen.”
Bachet recalls: “Instead of a musical brief, Ghislain Soufflet [Breakpoint's Audio Director] and I simply walked into the studio with a huge list of cues to record. Each cue corresponded to a specific situation, action or location in the game and for each we had some in-game footage.
“Before getting started on a cue we would describe the scene to the band, tell them where we were in the game's storyline, what mood we were after, the pace of the gameplay, and so on. For example, ‘you're wounded, separated from your teammates in hostile territory, and you need to sneak undetected in that enemy camp to retrieve some gear that will help you find the rest of your Ghost unit.’
“We might then listen to a bunch of musical reference material, but most of the time the guys had already started jamming before we were even finished with our ‘brief’! We would loop the video footage of that specific game section on the many screens we had all around the studio, and music would happen…”
Alain Johannes recalls that the overall guidance was detailed and evocative. “[Some of the words that came up included] mystery, menace, toughness, tension, betrayal, conspiracy and revenge. The game was also going to be about traversing the unknown, feeling trapped, feeling hunted and claustrophobic.” The protagonist would be up against a “military occupation by powerful enemies in a stunning landscape with an otherwise hostile natural habitat. There would also be gigantic architecture and advanced autonomous drone technology.”
Alain Johannes during the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint soundtrack sessions.
“The shape of the sessions was actually the most important aspect of the process,” says Bachet. “We were all together in the control room. Alain had his rig in front of him, tons of pedals at his feet, and instruments all around.
“Alessandro had this crazy modular synth from MakeNoise, a modded TB303, an OP1, and tons of pedals to run these through.”
Alessandro Cortini during the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint soundtrack sessions.
“Only [drummer] Norm was on the other side of the glass window in a room full of drums and percussion,” adds Bachet. “Sound engineer Max Allyn sat at the console — a huge sounding vintage API — and Ghislain and I were on the couch.
“The key thing was that we were all in the same room and could always see and talk to each other during takes.”
Norm Block during the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint soundtrack sessions.
Finding the right headspace was a cinch, according to Alessandro Cortini: “When you are working with people who are very efficient at conveying their requests, and pleasantly collaborative in creating the result, any sort of required mood is easy to imagine and manifest musically.
“From a more pragmatic perspective, we were also lucky to be able to see alpha footage of the game, which facilitated the process on a more immediate level.”
Bachet recalls: “As soon as the game footage was running, Max would push the red button and everything was recorded from then on. During the performance, I'd walk around the room to give the guys some indications, such as ‘more intense’, ‘cool it down’, ‘loop that pattern’, and so on. I would also take a lot of notes about musical events that I thought were interesting or things that needed attention for later. There was always a moment when you felt that the band had found this sweet spot and everyone was into it — where the magic happened.”
“These jams were super intense and could last somewhere up to 15 minutes. We would sometimes add more elements to it — ‘overdubbing’ extra musical parts — later on.”
“There was also a lot of experimentation, such as ‘sending’ Alain's guitar signal or Norm’s drums to Alessandro's gear so the latter could manipulate the sound,” says Bachet. “This resulted in some incredible textures and crazy musical accidents.
“We tried as much as possible to free the band from any technical constraints in terms of video game music. We'd sometimes impose a tempo, a time signature or a key to make sure that a specific cue would chain easily with another linked to it, but the most important thing for us was to capture the performance, the intensity of the moment, and all these unique musical collisions.
“We did that all day long for three fantastic weeks and came back to Ubisoft Paris with more than 10 hours of music to log and edit. This is when we dealt with the constraints of implementation within the game engine.”
Tech and textures
“We established possible textures early on,” Alain Johannes recalls, “including some [stand-out] ones we created in Ghost Recon Wildlands and new textures specifically for Breakpoint. Beyond that, our guided group improvisations were directly reactive to the visuals, atmospheres, dramatic arcs, etc.”
The team was inspired and guided both by the specifics of the gameworld — for example Auroa’s geography — and the mood of the game and its combat. Johannes adds: “Once we had a solid palette and framework to work within, we also fine-tuned and created more specific themes and atmospheres for each setting.”
It wasn’t a stretch for ‘sound wizard’ Alessandro Cortini to develop sounds and musical ideas that resonated with the drones and other military tech in the game: “That electronic approach comes easy to me since I tend to mostly create with those instruments [analogue synths, computer software, etc.] but It was always a combined effort, where we all fed from each other constantly. Manu made it clear where the advanced tech would become more foregrounded, especially in the Skell Tech locations.”
Seeing Cortini in his studio, you get the impression of a solitary soul; a twiddler of knobs with an endless curiosity for electronic instruments, wires, and old technology. The process of discovering sounds is clearly as important as actually playing notes. “I think of them as one process, which changes in response to interactions with other creators. With Breakpoint, it made for a refreshing and enriching experience since I tend to work alone most of the time. It also allowed us to deliver a collection of pieces that are much more valuable than what we would have done individually.”
You might expect him to be a purist about analog synthesis (boxes, cables, lights, switches, knobs, etc.) versus software instruments (computers, plug-ins, presets, etc.), but he’s entirely pragmatic: “These days I don’t believe in the tool having as much of a say as I thought in the past. Whatever works and sparks creativity tends to be the right instrument for the situation.
“[What appeals] to me still are old and broken machines with a tactile interface, where I am able to make sound with my hands as opposed to looking at a screen. That’s very subjective though, as I have many colleagues who feel the same way about software.”
Getting out of the way of the gunfire
Video game soundtrack music has to complement (and compete with) all the other audio elements at play: foley, dialogue, gunfire, explosions and environmental ambience. Percussion is something that has to be handled thoughtfully, because the risk is that something too busy or too loud might distract from the player experience.
To suit the project, percussionist Norm Block leaned more towards metallic gear to create sounds: “I used ribbon crashers; small stacked cymbals that I would place on various drums or hit on their own; and there were some gongs and particular larger cymbals that I would bow for effect. I essentially had a few percussion stands of various esoteric sounds.”
Fortunately, Block is also a consummate musician: “Sometimes my part would be circling a brush, or just my hand, on the skin of a drum to create a very subtle pulse. Or I might be tapping my hands on the larger concert tom drums, then moving to a subtle gong hit.”
“I was quietly moving around the room creating an undercurrent of tension,” says Block. “I would also maintain an ostinato pulse, such as a low tom pattern with mallets, and create a quiet anchor to the tension Alain and Alessandro were creating either live or over-dubbing. Sometimes I would even throw stuff and let it land on the floor for an unexpected effect! If I got real lucky, we would feed my performance on drums or percussion through Allesandro's modular synth rig, and he would manipulate it in real-time — and I would get to react to those effects. Super cool!”
Between Rock and a dark place
‘Rock’ is one of the broadest genre labels in music, so broad as to be almost meaningless. That said, it does help us orient ourselves when it comes to the Breakpoint score, in part because there isn’t that much of this kind of rock — dark, experimental and grungy — in video game soundtracks.
“It qualifies as rock,” insists Alain Johannes, “because to me that [genre label] signifies the freedom to include influences from any style. It’s the attitude that makes it rock.
“In several of my rock collaborations and projects [including Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures] there’s been a spirit of teamwork, an ease of improvisation, and composing as an ensemble. There’s also been a commitment to create something timeless and awesome — that influenced the process for Breakpoint, too.”
Norm Block agrees that the spirit of the Breakpoint scoring project was one of freedom and expression, which stands in contrast to the technical and musical restrictions that can often affect composers and musicians working in music for media. “Of course we had to choose the [appropriate] timbre and elements for the mood and energy level [in question] but for about half the time there was very little restriction.
“We would establish the basic chords and riff, and then play for ten to fifteen minutes while reacting to one another and going in different directions. Usually, Manu would throw some visual dynamic cues at me and ultimately he would wind us down dynamically when he and Ghislain felt they had what they needed for each piece.
“In terms of the improvisational jamming, a few of my favourite tracks include “Showdown at Howard Airfield” and “I am a Ghost” — just a lot of fun! And I could stay and play in the mode of something like “Retaliation” for hours, honestly.”
“Everything always started with Manu and Ghislain,” reflects Allesandro Cortini. “Without his references, production and editing, the score would not have been as cohesive as it turned out. Also, we wouldn’t have had a clear direction on how to evolve each piece into the necessary variations required by different gameplay levels. It was an incredibly enjoyable way to work.
“There wasn’t a hierarchy in terms of who originated which piece. It was more about who had the first idea for the piece or mood we were working towards. It was a very orderly, chaotically productive environment — the right amount of all the right ingredients.”
“A lot of new exciting elements appeared because the recording environment was experimental and really fun,” enthuses Johannes. “The chemistry between Alessandro, Norm, Manu, Ghislain and I is super special.”
Block is generally effusive about the project: “The first time I heard the soundtrack I was totally in awe. ‘Wow! We did that!?’ It all happened so fast. Every day we created so much music on-the-fly, it was so satisfying. I had the best time ever.
“Of course, Alain’s vision, sound and versatility, and Alessandro’s instincts, tones and landscapes, created a very nice foundation. Also, Manu and Ghislain are magicians and visionaries. I’m very grateful to have been a part of this great experience!”
Manu Bachet is Music Supervisor and Ghislain Soufflet is the Audio Director of Ghost Recon Breakpoint at Ubisoft Paris
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint (Original Soundtrack) on deluxe double vinyl is currently sold out via www.lacedrecords.com